The revelation that the executive branch of the US government has conducted surveillance of its citizens and others without a court order is not being taken seriously enough. This is not a political football. This is not a partisan issue. It is a direct violation of the principles of the United States.

This country was allegedly founded on the principles of freedom. Admittedly, in the beginning, that freedom only extended to white landed males. But that’s the essential lesson of the US. The country has gotten stronger when it has extended freedom not limited it. The US freed its slaves, it granted the vote to those who don’t own land, it granted direct elections of Senators (though it has yet to do so for its President), it enfranchised women, and insured the franchise of minorities. In every case the country got stronger. Men and women, some who don’t own property, and many minorities, fight in the country’s armed services. Every extension of freedoms has benefited the country.

But the action of spying on citizens without the check and balance of even a secret court is a crime. It is a crime whether or not the President of the United States is evil or is the best thing that ever happened to the US. The matter should not be argued on the merits of the President as a whole but on this action particularly. Despite what many Democrats would have you believe, it is quite possible to consider this action of unwarranted surveillance a crime, and still respect and support the President in other matters. It is quite possible in his zeal to protect the country he made a mistake. But whether his impulse was beneficient or not is not at issue. Enlightened despotism was still despotism. A crime committed for good reasons is still a crime.

During the Nixon administration, while fighting the Soviet bloc, the executive branch also went too far. The President tried to defend unwarranted surveillance on the grounds that it was protecting the country. At that time the enemy was real, it was unpredictable and a war was being fought. Same as now. But that didn’t change the fact that the country did not want to give unchecked powers to the executive branch. Subsequently, more stringent laws were passed in order to protect against the abuses of that time.

Now we have a clear breach of those laws. The president admits the orders were given. He claims they were legal. Perhaps a court would find them legal but I and many others find that unlikely. The President defends the actions, saying he was protecting the public. That rationale, whether meant well or not, doesn’t justify breaking laws. That is not the kind of society the United States has desired to create. There are risks to protecting liberty. The government does not have a free hand to do everything it wants. But those risks bring enormous benefits, the benefits of freedom that have made the US a rather good place to live, all things considered. Undermining the checks and balances, and laws, of the US threatens the underlying principles that make the US good.

The United States is far from perfect. But so far it has started well and showed steady improvement over its first two centuries. This is a crossroads. At the US birth, the older governments of the world, scoffed and said the experiemnt in liberty and freedom couldn’t last. They implied the experiment was naive. Those governments eventually fell, or transformed into societies of freedom and liberty. But the American experiment can yet fail. This test won’t be the end of the experiment one way or another, but it will mark a turning in the direction towards freedom, or towards control. Whether or not the executive branch means well, we should not allow them to turn us away from freedom.